Argument

The 1776 Project Is a Desperate Search for the Right Enemies

Identity politics is painted as un-American—but historical patriots thought otherwise.

Immigrants listen to the National Anthem
Immigrants listen to the National Anthem at a naturalization ceremony held in the observatory of One World Trade Center in New York on Aug. 15, 2017. John Moore/Getty Images

On Oct. 6, 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his intent to create a “1776 Commission” to combat “anti-American historical revisionism,” “critical race theorists,” “cancel culture adherents,” and “flag-burning mobs” by promoting “patriotic education.” The commission itself was established a month later, just a day before the election that cost Trump a second term as president. A mere two days before Trump reluctantly left office this week, the commission finally published its report.

Newly inaugurated President Joe Biden has already canceled the commission itself, but the report stands as a disturbing memorial of the Trump era and the modern American conservative movement. Mercifully, it does not propose any particular course of action for imposing “patriotic education”—itself a familiar buzzword from authoritarian states like Russia and China for the imposition of nationalist propaganda. Rather, it is primarily a long-form persuasive essay putting forth a specific narrative of the American founding and American national identity, in direct and explicit opposition to “progressivism” and “identity politics” alike. But most of all, it reads as an attempt to patch back together the fraying fusionist alliance of right-libertarians and conservative Christians—a compromise of social conservatism and economic laissez faire that found its greatest success under President Ronald Reagan—while remaining aligned with Trumpism.

While Reagan and his followers combined the fusionist project with a positive vision of the United States and its role in the world as a bastion of liberty, contemporary efforts to sustain fusionism accentuate the negative, seeking to unite the right against a feared and hated set of foes, typically some combination of socialists, woke lefties, and the Chinese Communist Party. As the Democratic Party vocally opposes a Chinese Communist Party that spits in the face of left-wing American values as much as right-wing ones, Republicans who wish to hold their party together through fear must focus their efforts almost entirely on building up the menace of internal enemies. The “1776 Report” attends to this task with much gusto, but little skill.

Central to this is an effort to shoehorn the contemporary left in with the worst historical enemies of the United States. The report’s section on “Challenges to America’s Principles” lists not only slavery, fascism, and communism but also “Progressivism”—while “Racism and Identity Politics” are listed together. The details given do not help matters. Progressives, from the late 1800s to the present day, are declared proponents of an ever-growing “shadow government … without checks and balances … unaccountable to the people,” a phantasmagorical deep state on par with the Confederate States or the Soviet Union as a threat to American freedom, with the long-standing and mainstream left-leaning legal ideology of living constitutionalism accorded the same malign status as “Aryan racial supremacy” or the white-supremacist screeds of John Calhoun, as if the jurisprudential framework of Thurgood Marshall was kin to the Nuremberg Laws.

Progressivism is certainly not beyond reproach. Just as the founding of the United States was marred by the gruesome institution of slavery, progressivism was tainted at its origin with both a fascination with eugenics and an obsession with total control over the lives of individuals. Policies as vile as sterilization campaigns against (disproportionately Black) social undesirables or as absurd as the home economics movement’s suppression of flavorful food were instituted by starry-eyed progressives.

And yet, it was also progressives who dismantled crooked political machines, professionalized a previously corrupt and inefficient U.S. civil service, pushed for women’s suffrage, instituted the New Deal, and ultimately broke the back of Jim Crow.

The very movement that once kidnapped Native American children for forced Americanization found itself employing the Bill of Rights against state and federal acts of tyranny alike. An ironic parallel arises: Much as the “1619 Project” of the New York Times reduces the United States to its greatest sins (and is rightly criticized for it), the “1776 Report” shackles progressivism to its worst abuses. But both are far from the truth: A movement, just as a nation, may rise beyond its initial faults and achieve great deeds for the good of humanity.

The attempt to bind together racism with identity politics is no less clumsy. Under “Racism and Identity Politics,” the “1776 Report” begins by condemning white supremacy and Jim Crow, while initially praising the civil rights movement, before changing tone and stating, “The Civil Rights Movement was almost immediately turned to programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the founders [of the United States].” It goes on to accuse the movement of “abandonment of nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in favor of ‘group rights’ not unlike those advanced by Calhoun and his followers.” These are severe accusations, presented without evidence, and they unsurprisingly fall apart under even cursory scrutiny.

For one, Calhoun’s twisted notions of liberty did not center upon group rights. Calhoun, rather, believed firmly in individual liberties, provided that the individual in question was white; other races occupied in his mind a liminal state barely above that of beasts of burden, and with little more claim to dignity. What separated Calhoun’s ideology from that of the Founding Fathers was that even the slaveholders among them were by and large ashamed of slavery, sweeping it under the rug and hoping it would disappear quietly—as it seemed to be slowly doing until the invention of the cotton gin. Instead Calhoun held slavery up as an essential and beneficial part of American democratic-republicanism, blind both to the suffering of the slaves he abused and to the near-destruction of the American experiment that slaveowners’ rapacious actions would shortly bring about.

In contrast, few proponents of affirmative action or reparations have any difficulty seeing white people as people. Rather, they seek to modify, for better or for worse, the terms of a sociopolitical arrangement that recognizes white and Black people alike, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., as recipients of “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”

The effort to lump together identity politics with racism obscures far more than it reveals. In their effort to graft the entire left onto the gangrenous remains of white supremacy, the authors of the “1776 Report” studiously avoid mentioning “critical theory” by name, save for two paragraphs in the appendices, despite placing great emphasis on how “identity politics … values people by characteristics like race, sex, and sexual orientation”—the defining trait of critical theory in our time. This is a far larger error than it appears at first glance, for identity politics in the United States is not synonymous with critical theory today, let alone in the past.

Whereas the “1776 Report” frames identity politics as existing in direct and irreducible competition with love for the United States and its founding ideals, the truth has often been quite the opposite. In fact, people with identities looked down upon as un-American have frequently chosen to defend and define their identity by enlisting in the U.S. military. During the Civil War, men of German, Italian, and Irish descent, during a time when their heritage was still a subject of scorn, chose to tie their pride in their ethnicity to their pride as Americans fighting to save their nation from dissolution.

The 442nd Infantry Regiment, one of the most decorated U.S. Army regiments of World War II, was composed almost entirely of Japanese Americans, many of whom had families locked away in American internment camps. Its soldiers famously cried “Banzai!” as they charged Nazi lines in their rescue of the Lost Battalion. Most pointedly, Navajo code talkers, at a time when Native American languages were looked down upon and even repressed, used their endangered mother tongue to protect American military secrets from the Axis powers. American Muslims, even while facing social stigma for their religious and ethnic backgrounds alike, served proudly and openly in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Nor is the decision to tie religious identity to defense of the United States unique to persecuted religious minorities: Christian abolitionists saw the war against slavery as a sacred crusade—when Julia Ward Howe wrote the words “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free” into the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” she did not mean them as hyperbole. There was no more contradiction between Humayun Khan’s identity as a devoted Muslim and as a patriotic American than there was between Howe’s pious Christian identity and the same.

The same can be said for gender identity: Suffragettes fought for their dignity as women and rights as Americans in the same breath, nor has there ever been a shortage of men who explicitly tie their own masculinity to their willingness to take up arms under the Stars and Stripes. To equate all political expressions of personal identity to those of racial separatists or white supremacists, or even to the excesses of critical theorists, is as disingenuous as it is silly.

While making sense of the tortured logic of the “1776 Report” is a Sisyphean task, understanding why it mangles American history so very badly is not. A grab-bag of right-wing causes and grievances are copiously inserted, with anti-abortion, pro-gun, and pro-market views asserted as obvious and unquestionable corollaries of the American founding.

Obviously, countless pro-abortion rights, pro-disarmament, and pro-regulation activists and politicians also celebrate the founding and praise the ideals of liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness. But this fact cannot be acknowledged when the only thing tying together the contemporary Republican Party is a fear of the left. For if the vast majority of Democratic voters and politicians turn out to be patriotic Americans after all, the overarching menace of a leftist overthrow of the American Revolution can no longer provide justification when conservative Christians back a violent lecher, when advocates of inviolable rights excuse the kidnapping of children from their parents, or when self-proclaimed admirers of the Constitution vote to overturn a free and fair election.

The “1776 Report,” then, is not a stirring defense of American ideals. It is instead the death rattle of a fusionist project split apart by a criminal president.

Konstantin McKenna is a writer in Tennessee.